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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Lustre of Our Country: Why Religious Freedom is Foundational for Country and Church

Templeton Lecture Series

The Honorable John T. Noonan
US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Date: March 22, 2001
Location: Gasson 305

Event Recap

On March 22, 2001, the Boisi Center welcomed church-state scholar and Appeals Court Judge John T. Noonan, Jr. as the third speaker in the Templeton Lecture series. Noonan offered remarks from his latest book, The Lustre of Our Country, on "why religious freedom is foundational for country and church."

Noonan argued that religious freedom remains the most basic freedom for believers and citizens alike, asserting that only religious liberty entails claims to authority that transcends the state, making it more fundamental than freedoms of speech or commerce. He noted that religious beliefs provide values that guide actions that are not always the values the governing elite favors-citing the abolition of slavery in the U.S., led by New England ministers who claimed that slavery was a "natural sin" that must be abolished.

Noonan outlined the views of James Madison and Voltaire in providing a history of religious liberty in distinct contexts. He recounted Madison’s role in enacting the First Amendment and his conception of religious liberty as a "great barrier" to government invasion into the realm of conscience. Noonan contrasted this Madisonian vision of religious freedom with the French Enlightenment approach, which, he argued, amounted to "open war on the Roman Catholic Church in a Voltairian spirit!”

Turning to the present, Noonan conceded that court cases are easier to win on the grounds of freedom of speech than on religious liberty grounds, yet insisted that "religion can provide values in a way that mere speech cannot." On the process of deciphering which religious claims deserve protection by law in the various cases he hears, Noonan remarked, "you get to complete religious freedom step by step, not absolutely.”

In response to a request from the audience, Noonan also provided an overview of theologian John Courtney Murray's legacy on helping facilitate the Catholic Church's embrace of religious liberty after centuries of religious persecution. Noonan echoed the Vatican II insight that "only in freedom will you find the truth," concluding that freedom of religion is essential not only for country but also for religious communities themselves.